Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party got a big boost kin Tripura after it won the bypolls for the Dhanpur and Boxanagar seats with large margins.
The BJP retained the Dhanpur seat as its candidate Bindu Debnath secured 70.35% votes while the CPI(M)’s Kaushik Chanda was able to garner 26.12% votes. The sweetest victory the saffron party registered was in Boxanagar, where the party’s Tofajjal Hossain was able to wrest the seat away from the CPM. Tofajjal secured 87.97% votes while CPM’s Mizan Hossain was able to get only 10.07% votes.
After the bypolls, the strength of the BJP in the state assembly has increased to 33.
With 1 MLA of ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, the ruling NDA bloc has now 34 MLAs in the state assembly. The strength of the Opposition CPM is reduced to 10 while the main Opposition TIPRA Motha’s strength remains 13. Congress has 3 MLAs in the state assembly.
What It Means for CM Manik Saha
Apart from the BJP, these results are very significant for Chief Minister Manik Saha, who himself has led the party’s campaign in these seats. He toured the various areas falling under the two seats. With the chief minister himself on the ground visiting local voters, the saffron party got a big lead over the Left even during the election campaign.
Any loss for the saffron party in the bypolls would have dented Saha’s political image. It has to be mentioned that he was appointed as the chief minister of the state by the central leadership after suddenly replacing Biplab Deb last year — and this replacement of Deb with Saha benefited the party in the state assembly elections held six months ago. Saha’s simplicity and soft-speaking image improved the state leadership’s image among the voters of the state.
However, since his removal, Deb, who is currently the party’s Haryana-in-charge, has been trying to enter state politics. He has been unhappy with the way Saha, who was once considered close to him, has been running the government and also influencing the party state affairs.
This came out in the open this year when Deb openly expressed his views by saying that outsiders were running the party. Although he didn’t specifically mention anyone, it was very much clear that he was specifically targeting the chief minister and his followers.
Potential Cabinet Expansion: Will Internal Rivalry Resurface?
Worried that this factionalism may affect the party in the bypolls, the central leadership made Bindu Debnath the candidate of Dhanpur. Debnath is the party’s Mandal president of Dhanpur and importantly, the brother of union minister of state Pratima Bhowmik.
However, he wasn’t Saha's preferred choice.
According to local media, he wanted Subal Bhowmik, ex-state TMC president, to contest from the seat. Another choice of Saha was a local party leader holding a post at the party’s Sepahijala (South) organisational district.
But these weren’t considered by the central leadership.
This was done to avoid any kind of internal sabotage during the bypolls. It has to be mentioned that there were alleged cases of sabotage within the party during the assembly elections. Even Manik Saha himself had to win from a safe constituency like Town Bardowali with a reduced margin. Although Saha was lucky to ride over the internal sabotage, the state party president Rajib Bhattacharjee wasn’t that lucky as he had to lose from a safe constituency like Banamalipur.
By making Bindu the candidate, the central leadership forced Pratima and her camp to participate in the campaign to ensure the victory of the party — and as expected, Pratima herself took part in the campaign to ensure her brother’s victory. As a result of this, even the sulking Biplab Deb too later took part in the campaigning for the bypolls of the two seats.
It also has to be mentioned that the Dhanpur seat became vacant after Pratima had to resign from the seat without even taking an oath as an MLA to save her Lok Sabha membership. She resigned after she was forced to resign by the central leadership. But before resigning, she with the backing of the Biplab camp unsuccessfully tried to influence the central leadership to become the chief minister of the state.
Currently, the state cabinet has three vacant posts and Manik Saha has been holding many important portfolios including health, education, public works department, revenue and rural development. It is obvious that there would be a cabinet expansion to fill the vacant posts. Particularly, Saha himself would want to relieve himself from the many crucial portfolios he is holding.
One of the possible faces to be included in the cabinet seems to be Tofajjal Hossain, who after winning the Boxanagar seat has become the only Muslim representative of the saffron party in the state assembly. Boxanagar is a Muslim-majority seat and the saffron party winning this seat is definitely a significant moment for the party, which has been often accused by critics of being “an anti-Muslim party”.
It is likely that the party is going to give him a place in the state cabinet in order to send a message to the Muslims that the party isn’t against the community and to reiterate its message of Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas.
But the anti-Manik Saha camp would also want their representatives in the state cabinet — and one of them is Bindu Debnath. Although she failed to become the chief minister, Pratima is likely to put pressure to make her brother a state minister. It won’t be easy for Saha as there are other aspirants too — and this may again lead to an open display of factionalism.
It remains to be seen how the central leadership will intervene in the near future.
Despite Massive Victories, Challenges Ahead
The CPM, which had boycotted the counting process, rejected the results. It claimed that the results are manufactured through chappa votes (fake votes). As expected, the saffron party rejected the claims. Obviously, CPM has to accept that it itself has failed to protect its strongholds.
But the claims of the CPM — and also the Congress — can’t be just brushed away. The saffron party securing 87.97% votes in the Boxanagar seat — which it lost six months ago by getting 37.76% votes — and getting 70.35% votes in Dhanpur do raise important questions. It has to be mentioned that in the Dhanpur seat, despite Pratima being the candidate, the BJP won the seat in the state elections by securing 42.25% votes.
No doubt, the victory of the BJP candidates with massive margins in these constituencies has brought cheers to the saffron camp as the two seats had been Left bastions for a long time.
But the chief minister and the ruling BJP shouldn’t forget that the party in the past had swept the panchayat elections and the civic polls but it saw a reduction of seats tally and vote share in the assembly elections held six months ago.
After all, these are by-elections where generally the voters of the state tend to vote for the ruling party. Let's not forget that before getting defeated in the 2018 state polls, the then-ruling CPM too won all the by-elections held between March 2013 and March 2018.
(Sagarneel Sinha is a political commentator. He tweets @SagarneelSinha. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)